Memorial Day and the Christian Crisis of Doctrinal Imagination

Tony Sig

It is perhaps predictable for readers of this blog that at least one of us should write about Memorial Day.  We are not often shy in our youthful enthusiasm and naivity about our conflicted loyalties as American citizens and also of the Church; and of the necessity of radical discipleship in the face of what we, or I at least, perceive as a nation state who has hijacked a Christian soteriology.

I am an American.  My life is pretty good.  I am grateful for the gifts and opportunities that I have had throughout my life, some of which I would not have had in some other countries.  It would be dishonest of me not to note this.  I often hear that these benefits are only possible because of the sacrifices of soldiers who have bravely fought and willingly sacrificed for the United States.  That may in part be true, but it also points to a larger picture that I should like to address.

It would be easy to blame Constantinianism, blame the Enlightenment, blame the rise of atomistic politics for war, but the old adage about pointing your finger seems to ring true: “If you point your finger, you’ve three fingers pointing back at you.”  My life is what it is with reference to these things.  I cannot transcend the history in which my identity is tied up.  So a simple blame game can only implicate myself in those things which I blame.  I am not an island unto myself:  who I am is only as it is in relation to other people and to the past which we narrate into our identities.

I’d like to think through this with reference to a few Christian doctrines:

It is common to hear Augustine blamed for the doctrine of “Original Sin.”  This is, as most such “blame the fathers for a doctrine” schemes are, reductionistic and crude.  Whatever the case though, we can thank Foucault for making the doctrine much more plausible in the contemporary scene.  There seem to be structures of power and violence in place before I even come to be in the world.  They are things over which I have little to no control and are fundamental to my existence, so much so that for most of my life they are invisible.  I am born into a world already organized politically, economically, sociologically, religiously.  This is essentially the doctrine of Original Sin: that structures of oppression, violence and rebellion against God are ‘already in place’ and work to form us as people before we are able to understand  or critically resist them.

Because these structures are there from the beginning, they are easily taken for granted; assumed to be a natural given, something inevitable and often even good, as in being American, or at the very least ethically neutral, as in market economics.  Memorial Day fits in well here.  It is easy to assume that, because we have a relatively good life, the given social structures that we have are ‘how things are’ or ‘how the world works.’  The thought follows, that if we as Americans enjoy “freedom” and “prosperity” then the possibility of war as means to defend this freedom and prosperity are a necessity.

But no sooner is that thought out of my mouth than I realize that this implicates my own well being in a cycle and chain of violence and oppression.  We return again to the fact that our world still operates in a cycle of “Original Sin.”  My life is implicated and intertwined in the lives of others and that life is often manifested in and guaranteed by war.

This is why classical theology is so very important.  Christ enters into this world as one not implicated in this cycle.  His sinlessness means for us that by the power of the Spirit we are brought into the life of a God whose very nature from all eternity is one of perfect peace, perfect mutuality.  We are not merely shown a way to live well, as if Christ was a mere moral exemplar – which is good as we are rather bad at such imitation – rather, by virtue of our baptism and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we are incorporated into that life of peace and given the means to live it.

This is why the Church is a politics and why it can and ought to challenge the givenness of Memorial Day.  In the Church, we are commanded to live reconciled lives to each other, submitting to each other, loving each other, giving to each other even as Christ gives perpetually and without reservation to the Father, a giving we are able to do only on account of the Spirit.  There is no other name by which we might be saved.

This then is what I mean by the crisis of doctrinal imagination; that we have become accustomed to imagining the Christian Gospel as one merely effecting ones personal salvation post-mortem.  Original Sin, Christ’s sinlessness, God as Trinity, the exclusivity of the Church; all of these reduced to crude propositional statements needed to fill a gap in narrative logic become worn out quickly and whither and die.  The Gospel makes a difference as to how we conceive our political allegiances.  This isn’t about some stupid “Right vs Left” thing.  This is an Isaiah 2.1-5 kind of thing:

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

3 And many people shall go and say , Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 And he shall judgeamong the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

5 O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD

This raises the problem of the Church’s need to relearn how to read the Old Testament Christologically, but that is for another day.  For now I hope I’ve hinted however poorly at the ways in which the Christian proclamation ought to revise other stories which we tell about ourselves.  I also hope I’ve done it in a way that does not reduce to finger pointing at American soldiers as such essays as this even of mine have been prone to do.

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27 Comments

  1. Thanks, Tony. Again, respectful and insightful. Needless to say, I’m in agreement with your judgments, and I especially appreciated these words: “We are not merely shown a way to live well, as if Christ was a mere moral exemplar… rather, by virtue of our baptism and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we are incorporated into that life of peace and given the means to live it.”

    Reply

  2. Thanks Chris. I’m trying to grow up in my thinking. I can be and often have been insensitive regarding these things. And of course I’m a theological noob (anyone who knows knows that this has the whiff of Rowan Williams about it). But the blog is a sort of playground for me where I try and test boundaries and learn to speak responsibly. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. Adhunt,

    We live in a nation state that is fast pending toward the status of empire. I am on-board with you on this. One indicator of this is the rise in the sacred marketplace of military. Militarism is a commodity that is becoming increasingly marketable. Private military company, Blackwater, has increased its sales revenue, as the war lingers on with bad guys buzzing around — indeed, they have changed their name from Blackwater USA to Blackwater Worldwide.. Further down the spectrum, video games have also made some serious loot of games like Halo or Metal Gear or Call of Duty, et cetera.

    That said, I am not sure if classical theology is so important as biblical studies. Theological constructs have tended to ask not exegetical questions but speculative, extrabiblical ones (see J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: Imago Dei in Genesis 1, Brazos Press, pp. 17-30).

    Even Augustine himself talked about the influence of Neoplatonism on his thinking. The mind/body dualism construct is a Western template that was hoisted onto the biblical text, and awkwardly so. Ideas like “original sin” or Foucault’s “discursive formations” limit and ensnare humankind inside the confines of a speculative and existential discourse. Exegetically speaking, however, we are not merely relegated to the discourse of cultural discourse; these patterns can and have been broken — Christ is testimony of that.

    Further, he was retraditioning creed, as with “love your enemies” in Matt. 5, which rewrote Lev. 19 “love your neighbors.” Another Christological newfangled discourse was the idea that God’s law is written on the tablets of our hearts. These two critiques of creed, within the tradition of creed, enable and encourage contemporaries to do the same. This prophetic edge gives us a paradoxical lens: we can function and thrive in such a beautiful creation amid the remaining skirmishes of sin and death.

    If Scripture enables faith, faith must enable Scripture; said differently, mutual interdependency is very much alive in the biblical scope of things. I think biblical studies can really facilitate this call/mission.

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    1. Mike – Thanks for your encouragement. I don’t really put Scripture against Creed(s); I’m not a good iconoclast. As an Anglican I’m obliged to be committed to the conviction that nothing in our Creeds and Liturgies are contrary to Holy Scripture. I’m not perfect on that conviction but I’m strongly there.

      Matt – There’s a time and a place for all things under the sun.

      Jordan – I’m blushing

      Reply

  4. Good post, Anthony. I’m personally inspired by your desire to speak more responsibly about these things, because I too have expressed my frustration on such topics a little too openly and without accountability. In fact, my latest post on “memorial day” could probably have been a bit more charitable and less impulsive.

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  5. Adhunt,

    You Anglican folk have certainly done some good things with creed; and you have quite the heavywieght champ in N.T. Wright.

    But I do wonder, Adhunt, if all of us should sharpen our prophetic elbows from time to time when mixing/socializing with church authorities; so as to keep them on their toes, of course.

    I must say, I am quite in the dark about how the good Bishop of Hippo’s “original sin” – or take on original sin, as it originated with Irenaeus – fits into the overall trajectory of Scripture. The entire sweep of the redemptive process integrates humankind as very functional agents of the divine in the attempt to redeem or retract creation’s inherent goodness. Indeed, the imago dei is recapitulated in a postfall situation (Gen 5:1 and Gen 9:6).

    Reply

    1. Mike,

      You are more than welcome to just call me plain old Tony.

      I hope I didn’t give the impression that somehow the “Tradition” of reading Scripture is somehow uniform and uniformly authoritative. I know things that I disagree with St. Augustine on, and I wasn’t really leaning on his own articulation of “Original Sin” as much as I was noting that he is often blamed for it (with the implication that it is somehow sub-biblical if he ‘just came up with it.’). For my part I don’t see the hard East/West division until after the rationalization of a post-Ockham Western Christendom, that is, if we interpret Aquinas through an Anselmian lens anyway (which I think we should). Therefore I don’t draw a hard line between “Original Sin” motifs and “Image of God” motifs: both articulate well enough the anthropological implications of the Incarnation and Resurrection for me anyway.

      Reply

  6. Tony great post on structures that we are already born into, I think you hit a home run.

    However since you broached the topic of Memorial Day I think you missed or at least fail to address the issue.

    Memorial Day is exclusively about those who lay down their life for others. The Gospel clearly states there is no greater act then this.

    Regardless of the system that may unjustly call these men and women into service they give their life for their fellow soldiers in order to preserve others lives as the cost of their own.

    I’ve had the privilege for many years to see the caissons coming off of flights at my airport of those that have given their full measure. Its sad for me that no longer occurs on commercial flights because people in this country feel the need insert their political views on those families who are grieving over a loved one.

    I would strongly suggest if you’ve never seen the movie Taking Chance to buy or rent the DVD. It should IMO be required viewing of every American especially around memorial day.

    Reply

    1. Quickbeam,

      I’ve been thinking of you as I’m running through Lord of the Rings and just finished with the Ents destroying Isengard.

      Part of the problem I see with what you’re about “laying down your life for another” is that it is only 1/4 of the story. American soldiers are not the only people killed “defending our country.” There are the dead of our “enemies,” and their civilians, and also those civilians of ours that are killed in war. This is the total “cost” in human lives that occur on account of war. But Memorial Day is not about honoring or grieving those lives: this is why I think it is ideological.

      There is also the assumption that war is a necessary (even if unfortunate) cost to being in the world. But I disagree and so does what the Church and the Eucharist announce. I’ll recommend to Jen that we Netflix that movie but to reciprocate I’d recommend a book by a (non “liberal”) Roman Catholic William Cavanaugh entitled “Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ”

      Reply

  7. If your definition of original sin is correct (and I think it is), and if the Church lives into its mission as a witness of a new Kingdom and a new way of life free from the already-in-place structures of violence, oppression and rebellion against God (and I think it does/will), then infant baptism into the Church really does (at least begin to) erase original sin by inducting the child into a different reality so that s/he can grow up with a different narrative. 🙂

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  8. Tony,

    I agree with you and disagree. I didn’t serve in the military so really I don’t have a leg to stand on. I have however had a number of retired military servicemen and the actions taken that cost their loss of life is almost always to protect their fellow soldiers. Yes one could say they are dying for their country but I think its really about saving others.

    The ideology is much more up the military food chain from those that died in combat. Most of those killed in action aren’t generals their privates and corporals. Both our current wars are morally unacceptable, it doesn’t in anyway diminish those who gave their life up in those actions.

    “There are the dead of our “enemies,” and their civilians, and also those civilians of ours that are killed in war. This is the total “cost” in human lives that occur on account of war.”

    Yes we should have a day to remember and honor those as well. In the mean time I think we will have to include them in All Saints and All Souls day.

    Cavanaugh’s books has been on my list, I’ll move it up the ladder.

    Reply

    1. Quickbeam,

      I am in no position to make a judgement on the inner motivations of soldiers. At the end of the day though I’m not trying to make that sort of judgement, nor am I trying to minimize the sacrifice they themselves were willing to make; but I do think, going back to those “in place structures,” that we cannot escape the context in which these actions come to be formed and in our case it is tied into a much larger nation-state and specifically American narrative, a narrative that I think is challengeable by the Church.

      Memorial Day functions as a type of public liturgy that works to reinforce certain ideas. See this Cavanaugh article for a more substantive treatment.

      I am nothing but a borrower of those I’ve read at this point in my young life so I don’t pretend to have a full grasp on all these things, I recognize that there is diversity in the Christian tradition with respect to war. But I’ve yet to read justifications for “just war” that are as compelling as other perspectives represented by an even longer-standing Christian tradition of peace advocacy. Remember Christians weren’t even allowed to join in the army in the ante-Nicene Church.

      p.s. – On our blogroll there is a link to a site that hosts a bunch of Cavanaugh articles if you want to try your hand at some essays before you get around to his books.

      Reply

  9. Tony,

    Your analysis about the “givenness” of Memorial Day is apt. The church, as politic, is obligated and called to offer up its honest critiques of cultural holidays such as these. If the church has a political bent, then, as you point out, the gospel is not about a get-out-of-jail-free card after death; no, it calls us to action in the here-and-now. Thus Paul was urgently calling people to action by proclaiming/heralding a new and different Lord, that being not Caesar but Jesus, now risen and ascended (NT Wright talks about this).

    — Wright has somewhere used the symbol of the cross’ “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions; the church has tended to overemphasize the verticalness of the cross (aka the here-after), thereby diminishing the importance of the horizontalness of the cross (aka the here-and-now).

    … My point wasn’t to be iconoclastic, only that perhaps biblical studies can authentically reshape and reconstitute the cross more so than theology. For instance, a theologian tends to corner an interpretation, like that of “original sin.” But the terminology nevertheless is accompanied by other terminologies, right?

    Take “trinity” for example: some have called it “godhead” or “divine company,” but none of these terms are actually in Scripture itself. Creating systems of thinking about the recurring motifs in the biblical account and the meaning therein (aka theology) is fine. — What I have a problem with is when we lose the distinction between Scripture and our own systems for thinking about Scripture.

    Reply

    1. Mike,

      I think that if we continue to parse this out we will simply end up sharpening our disagreements and perhaps introducing more. I don’t support sola scriptura nor am I convinced of the possibility of Scripture having one or original meanings. I think the history of exegesis, including pre-modern exegesis, lays to rest the idea that with just a little bit more Scriptural and exegetical study, a little bit more “biblical” theology or studies, we’re going to get down to the “meaning of Scripture,” let along come to an agreement on what Scripture is saying, or another way of putting it is that there is no way to disentangle “the distinction between Scripture and our own systems for thinking about Scripture.”

      But, as I am by conviction a charismatic catholic, though unfortunately in a Protestant body, I am not much bothered by this as I don’t think that that is how Scripture functions in the Church.

      Reply

  10. “Memorial Day is exclusively about those who lay down their life for others. The Gospel clearly states there is no greater act then this.”

    Did QBOA actually just equate what soldiers do with what Jesus did?

    Jesus was obviously referring to himself. And when he laid down his life, it wasn’t while shooting at Roman soldiers.

    If we accept the definition that armed conflict aimed at protecting others is Christlike, then we may as well celebrate Taliban insurgents who die while fighting u.s.american soldiers, too.

    And QBOA, would you be interested in doing a review/exchange program? I can watch Taking Chance, and you can watch “The Ground Truth”. It’s free HERE.

    Reply

  11. Charismanglican,

    “Did QBOA actually just equate what soldiers do with what Jesus did?”

    Oh come on that’s absurd and IMO uncharitable. You don’t know me well enough to assume such a statement.

    “If we accept the definition that armed conflict aimed at protecting others is Christlike”

    Sorry how did you draw that assumption from my statement. Perhaps you failed to read my post it included “Both our current wars are morally unacceptable it doesn’t in anyway diminish those who gave their life up in those actions”

    (CCC #2265), “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”

    Public authorities, furthermore, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense (CCC #2310). When men and women are called upon by their leaders to defend their nation they may do so with honor. The Catechism speaks of the worthy nature of such service (#2310), “If they [i.e. soldiers] carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.”

    Gaudium Et Spes (#79), “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.”

    You know perhaps its your internet delivery but you come across to me as morally smug on this issues.

    I thought we agreed to disagree on the just war theory even though its clearly within the Christian tradition historically. If you feel as strongly as you do then you should be more then willing to give up your life for the 50 million children who have been aborted in this country.
    Gaudium Et Spes (#79)“…laws should make humane provision for the case of conscientious objectors who refuse to carry arms, provided they accept some other form of community service.” Rather then question those who volunteered to defend you and your family and gave their life to do so you have the option of supporting the troops at home. I’d suggest Operation Snowball to support children of soldiers who have died and no longer have parents.

    “we may as well celebrate Taliban insurgents who die while fighting u.s.american soldiers, too.”

    Wow, hopefully this is simply your political spin rather then a theological one. If you can’t distinguish btwn an American soldier and a Taliban insurgent there isn’t anything left to say.

    http://www.trueorthodoxy.info/cat_on_law_God_24.shtml

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  12. — Hmmm..You’ve really quite misunderstood me, Tony; exegesis shouldn’t aim to “get down the meaning of Scripture,” only enhance the hermenuetical possibilities of Scripture and render things more complex! And traditional readings or creed ought to facilitate and encourage, rather than block, such versatilty.

    …That is why I made the point about “trinity.”

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  13. My bad Mike. It’s not the first time I’ve misinterpreted and it won’t be the last! I suppose I’m trying to get a feel for your approach because I’m generally only accustomed to encountering the “Bible trumps Tradition” card from anti-catholic evangelicals, emergents and revisionist liberal protestants. Not least when the “The Trinity phrase is not in the Bible” phrase is tossed around 🙂

    But your last comment cleared things up and I agree completely, even if I would emphasize the opposite end, that is, the necessary value in Tradition from preventing novel and harmful readings of Scripture.

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  14. It’s all good Tony!

    Yes, I agree hermenuetical flights of fancy — or novel readings just for the mere sake of being novel — can create problems. Hyper-subjectivity is something that needs to be hedged against; especially in a postmodern world where Derrida’s scalpel of deconstructionism has become warped into a kind of sledgehammer, prompting the free play of ripping apart any and all traditional takes on reality/religion. This is a bloodbath that I’d like to deter, if at all possible.

    But I am not squeamish about the possiblity of deconstructing traditional or classical takes on Scripture, as long as those critiques are leveled by skillful and sensitive underpinnings of the canonical sweep of Scripture. Said crudely, I am game if the criticism comes from one who has faithfully indwelled Scripture, thereby thinking/contemplating/dialoging about it in ways which spark new angles of thought without scapegoating past angles of thought (thus I welcome the range of ambiguity in Trinity/Godhead/divine company).

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  15. “At the end of the day though I’m not trying to make that sort of judgement, nor am I trying to minimize the sacrifice they themselves were willing to make;”

    Agreed and I think you did well in describing it.

    “We cannot escape the context in which these actions come to be formed and in our case it is tied into a much larger nation-state and specifically American narrative, a narrative that I think is challengeable by the Church.”

    Well if your speaking about the military industrial complex, or various alliances that this countries has with questionable countries or the current wars then yes I agree. If your questioning the right of a nation state to defend itself against aggressors then I think perhaps that’s much more difficult for you. Not as an individual one should always have the option to protest a war that the individual views as immoral.

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  16. Wow, adhunt, you’ve a opened huge, rusty can of worms.

    Before this thread runs down:

    I recognize that there is diversity in the Christian tradition with respect to war. But I’ve yet to read justifications for “just war” that are as compelling as other perspectives represented by an even longer-standing Christian tradition of peace advocacy.

    This reminds me of William Stringfellow, who was effectively a pacifist, but was held back from accepting the label by what he called — if I remember correctly — “the Bonhoeffer Dilemma.” He justified his doubt by appealing to God’s freedom. In other words, to say that Christians were forbidden the use of violence was put a boundary on the freedom of the Spirit to act in the world.

    I think I agree with him, tentatively. I can be convinced by pacifism on the face of it, but there’s always a doubt: if you had been in Bonhoeffer’s position — if someone asked you to help them assassinate Hitler during WW2 — could you have turned them down?

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  17. […] The irony I refer to in the title is that I know about this moral scandal, and am therefore enabled to be outraged, only because I possess the very coltan infested technology that makes me an accessory to oppression.  I am made aware of oppression only by my participation in it.  This points to the paradoxical ability of technology to connect us, making the whole world and all its problems available to my every click and tap (of the mouse), while simultaneously causing widespread isolation, oppression and–in a word–dis-connectedness.  All this reminds me of Tony’s exquisite definition of original sin: […]

    Reply

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